If We All Did This Before Flying For The Holidays, The World Would Be A Better Place
The U.N. warned us: We have 12 years before the damage we've done to the Earth becomes irreversible. Instead of letting reports like this paralyze us, let's use them to empower us. The experts are saying it's going to take a mix of large-scale change AND individual action to save our planet—and we want to help you do what you can. Consider our new series your no-excuses guide to cleaning up your act, one step at a time. Today, we're starting with a tip for cleaning up your holiday travel habits.
I recently took two minutes to calculate my carbon footprint for the year on Conservational International (sustainability editor move, but you should do it too), and I was feeling pretty confident about it at first. My tiny NYC apartment, penchant for recycling, love of the subway, and fear of driving put my emissions well below the national average. But then one section dampened my otherwise squeaky-clean score: my flying.
This year, I boarded two long-haul flights and a handful of shorter ones, slightly more than the average American. It cost me 3 tons of C02—a fifth of my total emissions for the year. A fifth! That's a lot of carbon for an activity that took up less than two days of my 2018.
Flying is probably the most polluting things you do all year, too. But asking you to stop doing it—especially during the holiday season—is unrealistic.
The problem: Airplanes emit lots of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Like most cars, airplanes run on fossil fuels and their exhaust releases a flurry of greenhouse gases into the environment. Carbon, yes, but also sulfur oxide and nitrous oxide, which stays in the atmosphere for longer and has been called "300 times worse than CO2." And unlike cars, planes are massive! Too big for some of the innovations we've seen in the auto industry, like batteries that make it possible to travel on electricity alone.
According to the Air Transport Action Group, the airline industry served over 4.1 billion passengers in 2017. As it continues to grow, airlines are experimenting with ways to lessen emissions, like investing in biofuel and more fuel-efficient engines. They've found some success—in 2016, Alaska Airlines completed the first commercial flight run on biofuels. But progress is slow. Last year, when mbg spoke to JetBlue's director of sustainability Sophia Mendelsohn, she predicted it will be at least 10 years before running on biofuels is a cost-effective option for most airlines.
In the meantime, eco-conscious consumers can lessen some of their flying guilt by looking into offsets.
The "one small thing" solution: When you're flying, buy carbon offsets.
Buying carbon offsets is a way to fund projects around the world that pull carbon out of the atmosphere (think: solar farms, forest restoration, etc.) Reducing your own carbon footprint is the most eco-friendly thing to do, but you can think of carbon offsetting as a backup plan. If flying home for the holidays is a tradition you're not willing to part with, investing in offsets won't negate that flight's emissions, but it'll supplement them with some good.
"Interest in carbon offsets in general has picked up over the last couple of years as folks start to understand where their footprint is actually coming from," says Stephanie Harris, who specializes in offsets for 3Degrees, a sustainability consulting company.
The buzz makes sense: Offsetting is relatively inexpensive (according to the calculator I mentioned earlier, I can offset my yearly emissions for $14—less than it takes to buy insurance on one flight), and you can usually choose what projects you want to fund.
So how do you get started? These days, most airlines offer some sort of optional offset program to give customers the chance to tack a donation to a specific project onto their ticket price. And thanks to a recently passed United Nations Agreement, airlines that fly internationally will have to automatically offset a portion of their emissions by 2021. Here's a summary of the causes that major airlines are currently supporting.
If you want more jurisdiction over where your money is going, head to The Gold Standard and Cool Effect—both of which help fund a number of specific projects around the world and share information on the impacts and benefits of each. And you don't need to wait until you fly to donate money to some of these programs—why not make it an annual tradition? The planet, and your conscience, will thank you for it.
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